Entirely New Problems
May 6, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Apropos Sadie’s piece about “degenerate art”: today marks the birthday of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, one of many German expressionist painters whose work the Nazis filed under that dread “degenerate” rubric. Kirchner, who was born in Bavaria, suffered a breakdown when he was serving in World War I; he was plagued with health problems for the rest of his life, and spent much of his time in Davos. In 1937, the Germans destroyed or sold more than six hundred of Kirchner’s works; from Switzerland, he wrote,
Here we have been hearing terrible rumors about torture of the Jews, but it’s all surely untrue. I’m a little tired and sad about the situation up there. There is a war in the air. In the museums, the hard-won cultural achievements of the last twenty years are being destroyed, and yet the reason why we founded the Brücke was to encourage truly German art, made in Germany. And now it is supposed to be un-German. Dear God. It does upset me.
In 1938, fearing that Germany would annex Switzerland, Kirchner shot himself. The Kirchner Museum, in Davos, offers a fifteen-page biography of the artist—a remarkable, if sorrowful, read, full of suffering and exile. I was struck foremost by this prefatory note—intended to introduce his 1922 exhibition in Frankfurt—which Kirchner wrote himself under the pseudonym Louis de Marsalle. It finds the painter somewhat desperately planting the idea that he’s reinvented himself, that his illness, and his new life outside Germany, have only bolstered his work. He seems bent on convincing himself of his success as much as anyone else:
The bleak and yet so intimate nature of the mountains has had an enormous impact on the painter. It has deepened his love for his subjects and at the same time purged his vision of everything that is secondary. Nothing inessential appears in the paintings, but how delicately every detail is worked out! The creative thought emerges strongly and nakedly from the finished work. Kirchner is now so taken up with entirely new problems that one cannot apply the old criteria to him if one is to do justice to his work. Those who wish to classify him on the strength of his German paintings will be both disappointed and surprised. Far from destroying him, his serious illness has matured him. Besides his work on visible life, creativity stemming solely from the imagination has opened up its vast potential to him—for this the brief span of his life will probably be far from sufficient.